Great Barrington’s W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee Up And Running

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Back in September, Great Barrington, Massachusetts formalized a committee dedicated to continuing the work of one of its most celebrated residents: W.E.B. Du Bois. The move came a year after the 150th birthday celebration of the famed civil rights activist and author. Gwendolyn Van Sant is one of the committee’s 12 members. She tells WAMC that the W.E.B. Du Bois Legacy Committee is now unveiling the first fruits of its efforts – including a staged presentation at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center tonight.

Listen to Gwendolyn Van Sant’s interview here

In Great Barrington, interfaith community celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘dream’

Frances Jones-Sneed (center) of MCLA discourses of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Listening, at her right, is Bard College at Simon's Rock Prof. Justin Jackson. To her left is Wesley Brown, visiting faculty member at Simon's Rock.

Frances Jones-Sneed (center) of MCLA discourses of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Listening, at her right, is Bard College at Simon's Rock Prof. Justin Jackson. To her left is Wesley Brown, visiting faculty member at Simon's Rock.

By Terry Cowgill Monday, Jan 21, 2019 Life In the Berkshires   

Great Barrington — It may have been one of the most bitterly cold days in memory, but the oppressive weather could not extinguish the warmth and hope South County residents felt on the occasion of what would have been the 90th birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

About 70 people turned out Monday at the First Congregational Church for a service and interfaith celebration honoring the birthday and teachings of the iconic civil rights leader. And there was also prayer, song, dance and a panel of distinguished scholars, all of whom have studied and written about King and African American history. 

Former longtime First Congregational Church Pastor Charles Van Ausdall returned to familiar territory as a member of the audience. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Former longtime First Congregational Church Pastor Charles Van Ausdall returned to familiar territory as a member of the audience. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The event was hosted by a number of organizations, including the Du Bois Legacy Committee, which was formed in 2016, in part to spearhead a townwide celebration of the 150th birthday of W.E.B. Du Bois, a renowned scholar and civil rights activist who was born in Great Barrington and graduated from Searles High School.

Rev. Cara Davis, the longtime former director of Construct Inc., welcomed attendees, while Rev. Mattie Conway, the sister of the late Rev. Esther Dozier of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, led a prayer before all joined in singing “We Shall Overcome,” the iconic gospel protest song and anthem of the civil rights movement. Also on the musical agenda was “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the NAACP anthem written by Great Barrington resident James Weldon Johnson. 

The panel discussion on King and his legacy featured Wesley Brown, Frances Jones-Sneed and Justin Jackson. Brown is a visiting faculty member at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and a professor emeritus of English at Rutgers University. Brown is also the author of three novels; he edited a book on Frederick Douglas and is one of four narrators of a film on Du Bois, “A Biography in Four Voices.” Brown also worked in the 1960s on voter registration in Mississippi.

See video below of the panel discussion featuring Wesley Brown, Frances, Jones-Sneed and Justin Jackson: 

Jones-Sneed is professor emeritus of history, political science and public policy at the Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts in North Adams. She has directed grants for the National Endowment for the Humanities and is co-director of the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail. Jones-Sneed is also editing the autobiography of 19th century minister Samuel Harrison and is working on a monograph about Du Bois.

Jackson is a historian, author and assistant professor of history at Simon’s Rock. Jackson has also lectured on Du Bois. He has completed a book which is currently under contract to be published, entitled The Work of an Empire. Last year, Jackson wrote a three-part series for The Edge entitled, “W.E.B. Du Bois and his politics: A complicated and controversial legacy.” Click here to read it.

Among the questions Jackson asked Jones-Sneed and Brown was how best to further King’s message and the most effective method of activism for social justice and against racism. Both responded that the local level is the best place to start.

In addition to the brain food, there was entertainment provided by Pete Wilson and company. Wilson is a local musician who was a member of the Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church, which is being restored.  

The project took a big step forward last week when the group leading the restoration hired a design and architectural team. Indeed, Wray Gunn, who chairs Clinton Church Restoration, took the opportunity to pass around the collection plate to raise money for his group.

Students and faculty from the Olga Dunn Dance School also performed three numbers. See the video below:

Wray Gunn, who heads Clinton Church Restoration, prepares to pass the collection baskets for CCR. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Wray Gunn, who heads Clinton Church Restoration, prepares to pass the collection baskets for CCR. Photo: Terry Cowgill

 Former First Congregational Church Pastor Charles Van Ausdall, who was known as “Pastor Van” and retired in 2016 after 30 years at the church, also put in an appearance and spoke briefly. 

Below, to remind us of the eloquence and moral persuasiveness of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and why we celebrate his birthday, is his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.: 

As Festival again honors Du Bois, 'controversial' exhibit on display

By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle

Correspondence between W.E.B. Du Bois and William Faulkner in 1956 sits in an exhibit at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Libraries.   HEATHER BELLOW - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

Correspondence between W.E.B. Du Bois and William Faulkner in 1956 sits in an exhibit at the Mason Library in Great Barrington, courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Amherst W.E.B. Du Bois Libraries.

HEATHER BELLOW - THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE

GREAT BARRINGTON — On April 15, 1956, radio broadcaster Sidney Roger sent a telegram to Southern novelist William Faulkner, telling him that W.E.B. Du Bois was challenging him to a debate about civil rights in the wake of the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and the acquittal of his suspected killers by a white jury in Mississippi.

Faulkner replied that a debate would be a "waste of breath" unless Du Bois agreed that the pace of the civil rights movement required "patience and moderation," given the steady stream of dangerous upheaval.

And Du Bois, the black scholar and activist from Great Barrington, shot back with a reply in short sentences and all caps that included this: " ... debate is always useless in the face of inaction ... moderation with no forward movement is surrender ... "

This original correspondence between Du Bois and Faulkner is one artifact on display at the Mason Library titled "W.E.B. Du Bois — Global Citizen Rooted in the Berkshires," as the second year of an annual festival to honor Du Bois begins. The artifacts are on loan from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries' W.E.B. Du Bois Center's extensive collection of Du Bois materials, and include such items as a response to Mahatma Gandhi's death in 1929, letters from Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Zedong, as well as Eleanor Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman. 

The display, which will run through March 15, is one element of the larger festival that will feature a "Day of Service" on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as events, lectures and a play at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The festival runs through Feb. 28.

Randy Weinstein, co-chair of the Du Bois Legacy Festival Committee and executive director of the Du Bois Center, said the library exhibit is "controversial." But that's nothing new, given Du Bois' strong reach into the world, and his pivotal role in the country's debates on race and class. 

Du Bois had habit of knocking down arguments designed to keep the status quo alive. He did it again to Faulkner in combating the "go slow" approach to racial equality that Faulkner had presented in an article in Life magazine. 

While Faulkner, in his response to Du Bois' debate challenge, had agreed with Du Bois' moral stance about the murder and acquittal, he stood firm in his "go slow" position, and said that without agreement on this,"... we will both waste our breath in debate."

Du Bois succinctly cut down this philosophy.

"But moderation can only exist if there is action," Du Bois wrote. "Moderation with no forward movement is surrender. Moderation with murder of the innocent is retreat. Forward movement so long as it is movement and really forward satisfies all sons of God ever. Otherwise moderation ends in death."

Du Bois then said there was no need for debate if these points were not understood, and might be considered "time lost."

The debate never happened. In an interview with Du Bois, Roger had hoped Faulkner would agree to do it on the courthouse steps where the jury acquitted two men accused of killing Till, who was lynched for whistling at a white woman in 1955. 

In the Roger interview, Du Bois said he wished Faulkner would agree to a debate about the slow approach.

"It is rather ironic [for author William Faulkner] to ask the American Negro to slow down in his effort to be modern men. After all, we have been slowing down for ninety years to have the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth Amendments really enforced."

Du Bois then said he wanted to better understand Faulkner. 

"... to talk about this situation and see if it would be possible for us to either clarify our positions or to understand each other better than, certainly, I understand him now."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.

The Sun Rises in Great Barrington

The History of the Great Barrington Du Bois Legacy Committee

Mission: To preserve and promote Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois's legacy as a scholar and activist for freedom, civil rights, progressive education, economic justice, and racial equality.


   No longer in Great Barrington is W.E.B. Du Bois a Dream Deferred. The Great Barrington Du Bois Legacy Committee was born on September 3, 2018, at 7:14 pm. It was joyous occasion, with the town Selectboard voting the Legacy Committee into existence, unanimously, with a packed room witnessing history being made.  

  The Du Bois Legacy Committee had been conceived in January 2017, albeit unwittingly, when Randy Weinstein, the director of the Du Bois Center at Great Barrington, and Selectboard members Steve Bannon and Ed Abrahams met over coffee. Their agenda was arrow-straight. W.E.B. Du Bois would be turning one hundred fifty on February 23, 2018, and the town ought to commemorate the milestone event. They agreed that the anniversary celebration would embrace the "whole" Du Bois, without editing out uncomfortable truths, without apology, and afterward honor his post-150th legacy. The following month, the full Selectboard gave the green light, and things moved rapidly. Randy contacted Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, the ceo of BRIDGE, and an old friend. They would undertake organizing Great Barrington's 150th Du Bois Festival together. The co-chairs soon established a town-supported legacy committee, the genesis of the current town-appointed committee. The community stood squarely behind the town. The aim of the committee was visible to everyone, with regal banners up and down Main Street setting the tone for the year ahead, fluttering core Du Boisian values – civil rights, progressive education, economic justice, and racial equality.

     It was a one for all, all for one endeavor. Businesses and organizations signed on enthusiastically, some providing venues and funds. Academic institutions from Great Barrington to Williamstown to Amherst lent resources and expertise, while noted Du Boisians like Cornell Brooks and David Levering Lewis contributed valuable historical perspectives. Volunteers became an orchestra, together planning and running programs intended to entertain, teach, and uplift. Whether discussing German influences in Souls of Black Folk and the roots of the Civil Rights Movement or viewing a stunning student mural, rare artifacts, and an onstage tour de force performance, presenters set the bar high in order to assure the integrity of the Du Bois 150th. The Festival brought out the best in town government and its citizens, a sense of something larger than self, a commitment to close ranks when it came to permanently honoring Du Bois.

  No more dreams deferred. The community is indebted to the pioneering work of Du Boisians- scholars and activists, past and present. Their struggles on behalf of Du Bois live in the town's rich history and make us even stronger with resolve. Their dream became reality on September 3, 2018, when the Selectboard avowed "to preserve and promote Great Barrington native W.E.B. Du Bois's legacy as a scholar and activist for freedom, civil rights, progressive education, economic justice, and racial equality."

  An official guardian of the Du Bois flame, Great Barrington may well be the first municipality in the country to so honor the Civil Rights icon. Rarely is history created before your very eyes revealing a community's best angels.

~Randy Weinstein, Chair